Gospel & Universe

East & West 2

This page argues that because ‘the Eastern religions’ don't define God specifically, they’re easier to reconcile with doubt, science, agnosticism, and the Modern World  

Monotheism - Definitions & Anti-definitions - Que Scais-je?


Somewhere in the shift from Classical to Medieval, Europeans began to think of monotheism as the most advanced or sophisticated way to see the universe. This may be partly because many of the Greek thinkers already had ideas about a unifying principle or Force in the universe — such as Plato's transcendental One or the nebulous natural Force of the Stoics. Whatever the origins, many people still think of monotheism as the religious equivalent of social and political progress. They think of it as the final stage of an evolution from primitive superstitions — using gods to explain such things as thunder — to an rational notions of order, coherence, and progress. In this sense monotheism is the moral and metaphysical equivalent of a unifying principle in physics — Newton’s reconciliation of centrifugal and centripetal forces through the constant of gravity, or Einstein’s unification of space and time in space-time. Agnostics admire the optimism of such a unifying monotheistic vision, yet it also recalls Alexander Pope’s 18th century optimism: Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night; / God said, Let Newton Be! and all was Light. This in turn recalls Sir John Squire’s 1926 riposte: It did not last. Satan, howling Ho! / Let Einstein Be! restored the status quo.

While the Western religions see monotheism as superior to polytheism, the latter is in many ways more like the real world. In polytheistic systems, nothing is ever final: forces and figures are in continual interaction with other forces and other figures. This is like the real world, which is historically defined by its changing customs, power structures, philosophies, religions, and technologies. Throughout human existence, there’s never been one all-powerful Leader, Power, or System. There’s no historical parallel to the concepts of an eternally omnipotent Deity or Divine Providence.

One can see a complex dynamic of forces at work in Hinduism, the only extant polytheistic world religion. Transformation and diversification are the hallmarks of the Vedas, the Puranas, Mahabharata, and Ramayana, just as they are of our universe. There’s perhaps no greater analogy for the interplay of biological, geographical, and astronomical systems than the intricate worlds-within-worlds of Hinduism. These worlds are framed within cosmic cycles (or yugas) that last hundreds of thousands of years — the only religious time-frame we have that comes close to that of today’s astronomy. Hinduism and astronomy also share the interconnectedness that Alexander Pope writes of in the first section of his Essay on Man (1734):

See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What varied being peoples every star.

It would be the subject of a different essay to argue that Hindu polytheism accepts diverse and transformative perspectives more easily than the monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet Hinduism’s easy alignment with secularism and democracy, with rational and materialistic philosophy (Nyaya, Vaisheshika, and Mimansa schools of Hinduism), and with monotheism (Vedanta’s Brahman, Qualified Non-dualism or Vishisht-Advaita Vedanta, Bhakti’s devotional sects, etc.), suggest that it’s hasty to generalize about the innate superiority of monotheism. 


Definitions & Anti-definitions

At the end of the Classical Age, Jews and Christians tightened their definitions of God. During this same time Chinese and Indians continued to philosophize widely about the meaning of life, further diversifying their Classical stories and philosophies to the point where one dogmatic interpretation became as difficult as ever.

Perhaps one of the reasons China and India never developed strict definitions of God was because 1) they avoided an historical framework like that of the Abrahamic religions, and 2) some of their earliest and most influential thinkers presented clear yet fluid notions about an ineffable God.

The Chinese and Indians developed non-Abrahamic, anti-definitional definitions of God. The legendary figure Laozi (c. 6th C. BC) wrote that the Dao (the Way) is like water, benefitting all creatures but claiming no credit for doing so. Laozi says that whoever grasps the Dao has missed it, and that The Dao that can be named is not the unchanging Dao. Zhuangzi (3rd C. BC) wrote that cosmic Being is indefinable, human being is constantly in transformation, and the prospect of our being in the afterlife is completely subject to speculation. He does, however, leave the door open, suggesting that what comes after life may be a continuation of the transformations we experience in this life. He says that what “we can point to are the logs that have been consumed; but the fire is transmitted elsewhere, and we know not that it is over and ended.” In another story, his wife’s death leads to despair — to him “sitting on the ground, singing and banging on pots” — yet in time he reflects:

At the very beginning, she was not living, having no form, nor even substance. But somehow or other there was then her substance, then her form, and then her life. Now by a further change, she has died. The whole process is like the sequence of the four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, and winter. While she is thus lying in the great mansion of the universe, for me to go about weeping and wailing would be to proclaim myself ignorant of the natural laws. Therefore I stopped! (The Texts of Taoism, translation James Legge).

Bernard Down comments:

Death is like the progression of the four seasons, a natural part of the ebb and flow of transformations which constitute the movement of the Dao. To grieve over death, or to fear one’s own death, is arbitrarily to evaluate what is inevitable.

In The Kokinshu, a 10th C. collection of poetry, Ariwara Narihira supplies one of the finest yet most obscure takes on both old age and what comes after.

Scatter at random,

O blossoms of the cherry,

and cloud the heavens,

so that you conceal the path

old age is said to follow.

The Daoist’s anti-definitional definition of God led ‘masters’ to refuse to take a didactic stand — unlike the multitude of priests, pundits, ministers, rabbis, swamis, and televangelists. The Daoist master may believe that his Way is superior to other ways, yet he's the first to question this belief, and he's loathe to claim it openly. In the Tang Dynasty (6-9th C. AD) the poet Jia Dao writes that one must find meaning for oneself:

Under a pine tree

I asked the student,

who told me: "The Master

went to gather balm

somewhere in the mountains,

but the clouds are so thick

that I can't say where."

A refusal to fix the definition of God admits to the limits of our understanding. This is of course a very old Jewish concept, yet in the Jewish tradition the idea that God cannot be defined or represented in any form — or graven image — gets set in stone in a historical, genealogical way. Abrahamic genealogy then paves the way for Christians to believe that they too are the only ones to see the Light.

Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Taoism) resist defining God, while the Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) insist on a historical foundation (Abrahamic), a founding people (the Hebrews), and a messianic or prophetic line that culminates — at least for Christians and Muslim — in a single historical person (Jesus or Muhammad). 

While this type of genealogical religious thinking isn't prevalent in Eastern religions, this isn't to say that irrational exclusivity are rare: late Classical Daoists developed a pseudo-scientific alchemy focused on golden elixirs of immortality, and some Daoists today even talk about getting the Dao. Many Hindus and Buddhists believe dogmatically in the doctrine of karma-samsara, and the Hindu caste system is perhaps even worse than the Medieval European feudal system — especially since it hasn't been confined to the Middle Ages. 


Que Scais-je?

Too often, those who claim to know God — and urge us to be humble before God — themselves possess a striking lack of humility, even branding doubters as morally or spiritually inferior. Yet, as Byron points out in Canto 9 of Don Juan (1823), doubt is a function of our human condition:


To be, or not to be? — Ere I decide,

I should be glad to know that which is being?

'T is true we speculate both far and wide,

And deem, because we see, we are all-seeing:

For my part, I'll enlist on neither side,

Until I see both sides for once agreeing.

For me, I sometimes think that life is death,

Rather than life a mere affair of breath.


Que scais-je?* was the motto of Montaigne,   *What do I know?       

As also of the first academicians:                                      

That all is dubious which man may attain,                     

Was one of their most favourite positions.

There's no such thing as certainty, that's plain

As any of Mortality's conditions;

So little do we know what we're about in

This world, I doubt if doubt itself be doubting.

Byron seems to be arguing here that doubt is such a solid principle, so in step with our changing understandings, that it's not really in doubt. Byron isn't against the idea of enlisting, or believing per se, yet he doesn't feel comfortable with the stark dichotomy between belief and disbelief that dogma insists upon.

Like Byron, Zhuangzi refuses to be railroaded into defining the relationship between fixed positions:

Are there or are there not two views, that and this? They have not found their point of correspondency, called the pivot of the Dao. As soon as one finds this pivot, one stands in the centre of the ring of thought, where one can respond endlessly to the changing views — endlessly to those affirming, and endlessly to those denying.

Photograph by Saori

Photograph by Saori